SAN ANTONIO -- We've been duped, all of us. You're a sucker, I'm a sucker, and the Big Ten coaches who filled out their misguided all-conference ballots are suckers. Does that mean we suck? In a manner of speaking, yes it does. We suck.
Because we've been wrong to anoint Greg Oden as the most important freshman in his conference, and perhaps even in the entire country. He's not the most important freshman in the country. Or in his conference.
|Greg Oden's swats get the attention, but Mike Conley's the backbone of the Buckeyes. (AP)|
Conley is known as the Buckeyes' "other" freshman, after Oden. For that matter, he's known as the "other" Mike Conley, after his father -- a former triple-jumper who won Olympic gold and once owned the world record.
But Mike Conley Jr. is the most important player on the No. 1 team in the country. He was the Buckeyes' MVP on Thursday when the Buckeyes rallied from a 20-point deficit to beat Tennessee 85-84, and he has been their MVP all season. If it took the spectacular glow of Conley's dismantling of Tennessee to shed light on that bigger truth, shame on us. Because Conley has been doing this sort of thing all season.
Oden has come and gone. He missed the season's first seven games with a wrist injury. He missed overtime of the Buckeyes' second-round NCAA Tournament victory against Xavier, benched with five fouls as Conley took over in overtime with 11 of his 21 points. And he missed most of the Sweet 16 game against Tennessee with more foul trouble.
Biggest game of the season, and Oden had nine points and three rebounds. He did block four shots, including Ramar Smith's driving layup at the buzzer -- but let's be crystal clear about this, OK? Oden's block against Smith sealed the win.
But only because Conley Jr. won it.
Conley had 17 points. He led the Buckeyes in rebounds (seven), assists (six) and steals (two). He practically set up a residence from the foul line in the second half, attempting 13 free throws in the final 20 minutes, including two with 6.5 seconds left and the score tied at 84. Conley hit the first of two -- the winning point.
More than those numbers was the way he accumulated them. After Tennessee carved out its enormous first-half lead thanks to some scorching shooting from 3-point range, Conley led the Buckeyes back with methodical, almost cruel, nonchalance. He didn't let his teammates panic and start chucking bad 3s. He attacked the rim like a veteran boxer attacks an opponent's midsection, knowing the toll of each punch to the gut.
Now then, a word about Oden. He played bravely Thursday, going the last 17 minutes with a cut on his chin that required stitches afterward. He got hurt trying to block a shot, tumbling face-first onto the floor, yet did the same maneuver in the final seconds to get Smith's shot.
Oden is going to be a superstar in the NBA, and he was worthy of the All-America consideration he received this season. He averaged 15.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.4 blocks, spectacular numbers for any college center but nearly off the charts for a freshman. David Robinson wasn't that good, that young. Neither was Tim Duncan.